1 August, 2021- Tenth Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 13B
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
The four gospels are different.
You all know that. But I saw a meme recently that really clarified the differences. There are 4 icons or paintings of each of the gospel writers. And Matthew says, “before I begin, let me give you the genealogy of Jesus so you know that this is about a real person.” Because Matthew starts out with a long genealogy of Jesus going all the way back to Abraham. Luke says, “Before I begin let me tell you the backstory that led up to all of this,” and it is from Luke that we get the origin story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the baptist, then Mary and the visitation by the angel, and the trip to Bethlehem, and the shepherds, and all those stories we love at Christmas. John says, “Before I begin let me explain why it’s important to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” And we all know that John starts with this cosmic vision of the Logos—the Word—becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Mark (whose picture is not a western icon of St. Mark, but the warrior Shang from the Disney film Mulan, who) looks straight ahead and says, “Let’s get down to business.”
Mark is all about getting down to business. Mark is the gospel I tell people to start with. It’s the earliest written. It’s short. It doesn’t drag, and—as we’ve seen in recent weeks—it also has a lot of nuance to it. But, you’ve probably also noticed that we’re not in Mark anymore. Last week we started an interlude of John. I’m actually not entirely sure of the reason, but every third year, as we’re reading through Mark, we always get an extended interlude—5 full weeks in the summer—where we read the entire 6th chapter of John.
And, it’s not exactly beach reading.
I don’t think that I’m going to spend the next four weeks preaching about the 6th chapter of John, and Jesus being the bread of life…you never know, but the Spirit is not currently moving me in that direction, but since we will be hearing it for the next month, we might as well have a brief primer on it.
In John chapter 6, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about—no, insisting on…(in increasingly graphic terms, BTW) …that he is “the bread of life.” He’s so insistent…so “obnoxious” about it, as one scholar describes it, that he actually drives people away. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” (John 6:66), says John at the end of the chapter. This is not the gentle Jesus, meek and mild. This is not the healing all comers, teaching the multitudes with words of comfort Jesus.This is divisive Jesus…this is challenging Jesus…”you think you know who I am…what I’m about…what is required of you? No…step deeper into the unknown… get more uncomfortable…stretch beyond whatever you think is possible…and learn how to trust”—which is what “believe” in a faith context really means— What is the work of God? “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” To believe in God here, doesn’t mean believing certain facts about God, or Jesus”…it means trusting God.…It means trusting in Jesus… the one whom God has sent above all and beyond else…it means trusting in NOTHING other than God. And that’s not easy, is it?
At the end of chapter 6 Jesus directly challenges even the twelve saying, “Do you also wish to go away?” There are times in our Christian journeys when it does seem easier to turn away. As Leslie Sterling pointed out several weeks ago…sometimes you get people standing up against you even when you’re doing everything right…it’s not always easy to follow Christ, and to trust in Christ alone. “The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it,” (Matthew 7:13-14). John wants us to discover the narrow way for ourselves…and to take it…but it’s not easy.
John invites us into experiencing this struggle through what one scholar refers to as“obnoxious discourse.” He says, “[that] the claims that Jesus makes in [these obnoxious discourses] are so extravagant that one is pressed to adopt some kind of serious stance for or against him…[as] he renders himself more and more obnoxious to the authorities,” [Countryman, William. The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, p. 42]. Pay attention over the next few weeks and you’ll see what he means.
John links this discourse on the bread of life with the feeding of the 5,000 rather than the last supper, like the other gospel writers. We heard John’s version of that miracle last week (BTW, did you know that the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle story that appears in all 4 gospels?—fun fact.) The crowd that shows up today is the same crowd that got fed yesterday. They claim to be interested in signs, but Jesus says, “no, you’re really just here for more free food.” Now, Jesus is all about feeding the hungry, but he starts pushing them by saying, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life”…basically, “you still have to work for your food, but make sure it is the right food and the right employer,” [Countryman, p. 53]. And that stops then for a second, but then they say, “ok, you know how you can prove to us you’re the right guy? By giving us some more free bread.” To which Jesus responds…”I am the bread of life.” That confuses them (and rightly so) but he’s not done… “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven…” To which they respond, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” We know this guy, how can he come down from heaven…and Jesus makes it even more worse by insisting that “the bread that I will give is my flesh.” And then makes it even more unpalatable by insisting that we have to chew his flesh and drink his blood. We recognize this being about the Eucharist, but those gathered around him don’t. See at every step, he’s making it easier to reject him. Eventually only the twelve are left…and as we all know, even they will turn and desert him at the end. Why does he do this?
That is the mystery that John wants us to grapple with. He doesn’t really give an answer. In the words of another scholar, this talk about the bread of life, “begins with a grand admission that there is a good chance that whatever we think about [it], we may not get it. Encounter and comprehension of the Word made flesh takes time, [and a ton of] humility about what we can and cannot know, ” [Willimon, William, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3 p. 313]. It is not a truth that we “get”—it is a truth to be given—It is a truth that can only be experienced—a gift that can only be received.
So as you listen to the gospel over the next few weeks, pay attention to any resistance you feel…those times when you think, “eeew, what?” or “oh, nonononono,” don’t dismiss it, those are often doorways into deeper faith. Pay attention also to the thread within you that vibrates along with Peter’s response to Jesus’ challenge. When others fall away, Jesus turns to the twelve and says, “do you also wish to go away?” And Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go…you have the words of eternal life,” You literally are the word—the Logos—of life. And the Christian journey always points there…that end where we too discover that we have no where else to go…because Jesus is the beginning and end—the Alpha and Omega—the gate, the way, the truth, the bread of life, and on that we must place all our trust.